This week’s COVID Catch-up: Losing someone during the pandemic

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Carrie Steinweg shares the challenges that COVID brought to her mother’s final months and the grieving afterwards

COVID Catch-up is a weekly column featuring Lansing Journal journalist Carrie Steinweg’s personal experience with COVID-19 and things she learned from others who shared their experiences. Subscribe today to make sure you don’t miss any COVID Catch-ups. Last week’s column is available here.

By Carrie Steinweg
COVID
Carrie Steinweg (photo provided)

LANSING, Ill. (February 17, 2021) – I don’t know what is more sad about the pandemic—that so many have died or the way that they have died.

One thing that changed immensely in last year is that so many have suffered from COVID or other health issues and passed on from this world alone without the comfort of family being by their side. And then, compounding the tragedy, funerals and memorial services were limited to just a few family members or postponed.

Those who have became diagnosed with illnesses or life-threatening diseases often had to face it alone. Those who had extreme effects of COVID and had to be hospitalized were there without support. The elderly who reside in nursing homes and senior facilities, and have been lucky enough to have survived through this pandemic, have gone nearly a year without visitors.

Memories of Mom

I lost my mother in October. Her death was not related to COVID. I realized last weekend as I watched the Super Bowl that it was on Super Bowl Sunday in 2020 when I saw my mom healthy for the last time. We had gathered at my sister’s house in central Illinois for a little get-together. Four of my mother’s six kids were there and several of her grandchildren. She sat at the table with us and talked and laughed and hugged and played with the little ones.

I almost didn’t go. It’s about a six-hour round trip in one day when I go down to my sister’s house. And in the winter it’s often messy on the rural roads near her house. It can be a nerve-wracking, exhausting drive. It was also Super Bowl Sunday and it’s been tradition for years that I make a bunch of food for the kids and watch—even though we’re watching the commercials and half-time show more than the game. Despite all that, I made the drive down with one of my boys. I’m so glad I made the trip that day.

I had a date marked on the calendar to visit Mom about 3 weeks later and by then the nursing home had banned visitors. From then on, my communication with Mom came usually in FaceTime calls when a nice nurse named Erica was on duty. We’d initiate a FaceTime call with her on her personal smart phone and she’d pass the phone on to Mom to talk to us while she left and made her rounds. Mom didn’t have a phone in her room, so this was really the only way we were able to keep in touch. I could call the nurse’s office and leave a message. Sometimes Mom would make her way to the nurse’s station and make a return call, but it often resulted in rounds of phone tag that lasted hours or days. And seeing her face on the screen was so much better than a phone call. But it was so hard to not be able to drop in there for a visit and some hugs.

When my mom lived in northwest Indiana before moving downstate about four years ago, we saw each other often and even after she moved into the nursing home, I’d still see her at least every couple of months. This was the longest I’d ever gone without a hug from my mom and I missed it. Mom and I had this little running joke. I’d always greet her with a hug and a kiss. After a few minutes—and we could be deep into a conversation—she’d interrupt and say “You forgot to give me a hug!” And I’d give her a hug. A little while later she’d say it again. So our visits were peppered with lots of hugs. Sometimes I’d joke back with her and tell her she forgot to give me a hug and she’d laugh and I’d get another one.

A stroke and decisions

In August, my mom went to the hospital because she was acting disoriented. At the hospital they determined she’d had a stroke. One of my sisters and my brother and his wife and I each drove down separately the next afternoon to visit her in the hospital. We were lucky that we all got to get in to visit her, but just one person was allowed in her room at a time.

She was weak, couldn’t move her right side and couldn’t say a full sentence. She’d manage to mutter a word here and there, but it took great effort. Sometimes she’d motion with her good hand to get your attention. Looking in her eyes you knew she wanted to say more, but couldn’t get it out. Sometimes I’d finish her sentence and she’d nod to let me know I got it right. The visit was a total of maybe 25 or 30 minutes.

My sister who lives in Arizona made plans to fly out to see Mom. By the next day, the hospital had updated visiting policy and we had to designate just one family member who would be able to go in for the entirety of her stay. Over the next few days my sister went back and forth with hospital administration who didn’t want to approve sending her to a rehabilitation facility because she wasn’t showing enough progress. They wanted to send her back to the nursing home and my sister couldn’t get them to budge. We all knew that if she went directly back to the nursing home she wouldn’t get the care she needed. She also wouldn’t be able to have any visitors. She wouldn’t have anyone there to comfort her. She wouldn’t be able to communicate to staff who we knew would only be in her room periodically and she wouldn’t have someone there to speak on her behalf.

My sister made the decision to bring Mom back to her home where my dad lived in an apartment attached to their home—and where Mom lived before moving to the nursing home. My sister spent hours on the phone trying to set up home health care and follow-up care and soon the decision was made to transition Mom to hospice care.

Last goodbyes at home

It was a hard time for the whole family, but with her back home we were all able to visit with her, sit beside her, talk to her, play music for her, read to her, feed her, hug her and say goodbye to her. She was happy to see us and knew we were there.

My dad and mom, who had been married for 57 years, were able to be reunited after living separately for over a year. It really was a gift. I can’t imagine what it would have been like for her to go back to the nursing home from the hospital and never have seen her again (not to mention that there have now been 65 positive cases of COVID-19 and six related deaths there and she may have contracted COVID-19 on top of her other health issues).

A death amid COVID

There was no funeral. A memorial service is still on hold because of the pandemic and not having that shared mourning time with others is really strange. There’s a lack of closure. It’s hard to accept and grieve.

My story isn’t a unique one. There have been many families separated from a sick or elderly relative over the past year as a result of COVID-19. Many families lost loved ones without being able to say goodbye or had to do so by phone or on a video call. But our situation was unusual in that we were able to find a way, thanks to my sister, to spend some precious time with our mom before she was gone.

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